Friday, May 14, 2010

The Cattails of Niagara Falls

I've told this story verbally, many times to old friends, new friends, small groups, larger parties... but I've never written this story - or others like it - down before. Consider this a "trial balloon". If it goes over well here, I might compose a whole book of these, and perhaps publish it someday - probably after my parents pass away, to avoid them the embarrassment.

Niagara Falls
When I was a kid in grade school, my parents insisted that they had to take the whole family on a vacation, to someplace, once a year. Whether we could afford it or not, we all piled into the family car for a 1 or 2 week long trip, somewhere. In the mid 70s, it was a sky blue 1962 Cadillac Sedan de Ville that my father bought used, and that lacked a reliably working reverse gear. In the late 1970s - after the Cadillac gave up its last gasp - it was a chocolate brown 1970 Pontiac Catalina sedan. The Niagara Falls trip - taken before the 1973 gas crisis, was the 62 Caddy, fins and all. A mammoth, a giant boat of a car to a 6 year old.

My older brother and I would have the massive back seat all to ourselves. A large metallic Coleman chest cooler between us, we were told to strap in with our lap seat belt when seated. No shoulder belts or car seats for little kids back in the early 70s! But we'd frequently each take to the floor, where a deep foot well was large enough for a 6 year old to curl up, and sleep, ear to the floor board, listening to the drone of the drive train and tires on the highway. Separated by the rear wheel drive axial drive shaft hump, it kept my brother and I from annoying each other as well.

At this stage in their marriage, my parents did not like to plan. There were no cell phones or GPS back then, and my dad would frequently load the car up with food and gas and clothes and a Rand McNally Atlas, and head out across the interstate highway system. Feeling nostalgic for Niagara Falls, where they'd spent their honeymoon, my parents wanted to take their sons there to show us the falls and colonial forts. So we headed out of Northwest Indiana and headed East, all day, and all evening. It's supposed to be a 9 hour drive, but my parents like to stop at buffets for meals, read road side historical markers, and take frequent bathroom breaks. Rarely, did we ever pass a rest area without stopping for someone to empty their bladder.

I do not recall the uneventful journey through Indiana, Ohio, and NW Pennsylvania. I do recall getting a huge case of the "are we there yet?"s as we drove in the dark, through Western New York. Looking out the Cadillac's massive windows I recall seeing mile after mile of cat tails and interstate fences. Sometimes I would try and focus on a patch of cat tails as we flew past at 70 mph, and watch them as we sailed passed. Most of the time, there were just a blur - millions of cat tails alongside the interstate drainage ditches.

Well, we got to the intended hotel (Some kind of "Travel Lodge", I remember a sleep walking bear wearing PJs in the sign) in Niagara Falls NY that my parents figured would be able to accommodate us, and of course, they had no vacancy. It was sometime between 9pm and midnight at that point. So dad got his boys, the suit cases, and his wife back in the car, and headed to the next hotel. There, we all clamored out, and waited in the lobby, to hear the front desk clerk tell our father that he was very sorry - there's a convention in town, and every hotel is sold out from Niagara to Buffalo. We packed up into the car, and mom and dad had a heated discussion, in Polish. I tried to sleep down on the foot board well again, but dad kept accelerating and decelerating, each time a new hotel would appear along the road, until the red "NO" vacancy neon lights were visible (my dad is red-green colorblind, so he didn't see the red "NO" distinctly). Mom enlisted my brother and I to keep our eyes open to spot distant hotels, that they might have missed from the vantage point of the front seat. My older brother and I maintained a hawk-like vigilance, looking for the lights of any hotel.

Sometime around 3 or 4 am, we pulled into the parking lot of a flop house motel. It did not look fancy, but it did have red velvet covered benches in the lobby. I remember the red velvet, because I hopped up on a red velvet covered bench, and started to fall asleep as my father tried to check the family in. When I was a kid, I could fall asleep sitting straight up, anywhere. In the car, in a church pew, in class, I'd fall asleep and people would see me and worry I was going to fall over. In Catholic Mass, people who were kneeling behind me would sometimes hold their hands out, like parenthetical brackets, a few inches from my head or shoulders, waiting for me to fall over, but I wouldn't fall. I would just sit up straight, and sleep soundly.

Well, a working girl, who as I recall was wearing either leopard print knee high boots, or a leopard print miniskirt, sat down on the bench beside me. I remember the leopard print, because I don't think I had ever been That close to anything leopard print before, and I recall being woken up suddenly. I was being dragged off the bench by my arm by my mother, away from the hooker, who had seem amused by the little tow headed boy sleeping while sitting up beside her as she rested her tired, high heeled dogs, her arm around my little shoulders.

Up to the room our family went. I was blurry eyed, with the scent of menthol cigarettes in my nostrils. Being 6 years old, I remember the door knob and lock at eye level, and seeing the semi-repaired door frame where the locked door had been previously kicked in as the door frame was shattered inward. Exhausted, I climbed on on the heart shaped bed, and fell face down, asleep, on the king sized bed's crusty plush velor comforter of this very high class motel. Though parts of the bed spread were crusty and crunchy, other parts of the velor were soft and smooth, and it was much nicer than the sticky carpet to which my my shoes had been adhering. I didn't care if this place had a pool or not, I was just So Tired! My older brother found the bed vibrating coin operator, and plunked a quarter in it. The bed started pulsing, as I drifted off to sleep, my mother yelling at him to not touch that again, and him saying he thought it was some kind of candy machine.

I don't know how long I slept, but it wasn't very long. My mother refused to unpack, based upon 1) the water dripping from the ceiling, onto the bed, which wet a large portion of the bed [it wasn't hitting me, so what did I care?] and 2) the motel picture bouncing on the wall as a couple in the adjacent room enthusiastically, and loudly had sex. They were getting the most of the hour they were paying for, the head board of their bed banging against the wall. I do have a vague memory of my mother yelling in Polish to my father, as she tried to drone out the neighboring room's erotic screams. I saw my first ever bullet hole in the wall, next to the door as I was leaving the room. I remember looking at it as my mother grabbed my arm and pulled out of the room and into the hallway. We hauled our American Tourister suitcases down the hall way, and back down to the lobby. The hotel's owner only charged my father for an hour, and we packed back up into the car and drove to a truck stop where we all slept in the car.

Many years later, after my own son was grown and we'd moved to Arizona, my parents came to visit. As we were enjoying a bottle of wine watching a memorable Arizona sunset, my mother brought up "all the vacations they took us on when we were kids, even when they couldn't afford it, and oh, the memories!" And I remarked "you mean the endless miles of cattails near Niagara, and the hooker I fell asleep next to in the rent-by-the-hour-motel? That vacation?"

...let me know what you think in the comments, or via email (justjoepblog at gmail dot com, no spaces) as far as this being the first of several dozen or so David Sedaris-ish stories. I'm not as gay or as dry witted & funny as he is (or as he supposedly is, Dr Desert Flower and millions of others loves his books, but I've never been able to make it more than 1/2 way through one before thinking it was too histrionic to continue reading). I've had some weird things happen to be as I grew up, and as a PhD in English Literature once told me "Joe, you have a penchant for 25 cent words".

1 comment:

  1. Joe,

    I like. I have comments... will email. :)

    but, since I'm officially at work right now.. it will be tonight. :)


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